Opinion: LGBT Cinema Still Needs More Happy Endings

A drag queen dies of cancer. A closeted gay man chooses a loveless marriage over a man he loves. An older lesbian woman returns from a brief, joyful sojourn to a life of staleness. A gay man decides to stay in the closet for his career, saying goodbye to his lover. A gay father kills himself after being ostracised. A young gay man is left alone in a society that doesn’t understand him. A gay couple are forced apart by circumstance. A lesbian couple ends their relationship.

As a juror taking part in NewFest, New York’s LGBT film festival, it’s been a fascinating, challenging week of cinema. Within the international narrative strand, I’ve seen 10 films that offered a variety of perspectives and experiences, from Finland to Peru to South Africa, each with differing ages and sexualities represented, but almost all were united by one thing: a crushingly sad ending.

Whether torn apart by death, homophobia or the dissolution of a relationship, the common thread was that LGBT characters were being torn apart by something. For years, it’s become a given that gay characters end up drowning in misery, as predictable a trope as a virginal brunette outsmarting a masked killer, or a beautiful straight couple who were sworn enemies ending up in a passionate kiss after an airport reunion. It’s known by some as the Bury Your Gays trope; in a 2013 Guardian piece, James Rawson referred to it as the Sudden Gay Death Syndrome in discussion over the ending of A Single Man.

Brokeback Mountain, Milk, Boys Don’t Cry, Philadelphia, The Children’s Hour, The Talented Mr Ripley, Behind the Candelabra, Keep the Lights On, Gia, Death in Venice, Monster, The Crying Game, Aimée & Jaguar, Holding the Man, The Danish Girl, Longtime Companion, Circumstance, The Normal Heart, Heavenly Creatures – LGBT characters are lucky to end up alive, let alone in any vague state of normalcy.

This same topic I’m writing on now was the basis for a Guardian blogpost back in 2010 but how, in 2018, is it still such a recurrent issue?

A scene from ‘Disobedience’

Firstly, I’d like to point out that I’m not a critic or viewer who requires a happy ending in all instances. In fact, many of my favourite films have ended in devastating tragedy. I have an almost masochistic desire to re-watch unbearably sad films that others might steer clear of second time around. The same applies for films centered on LGBT characters, with the tear-jerking final minutes of Weekend as necessary and as perfectly realised as the finale of Brief Encounter.

I’m also not calling for LGBT cinema to act in an unrealistic echo chamber, pushing forward experiences of unbridled ecstasy with tidy, crowd-pleasing resolutions while many of those in the community face persecution and discrimination in the real world. There’s great value and importance in sharing tough, grim, real stories and reminding many of the fatal consequences that can still meet being honest about one’s sexuality.

But all I’m asking for is just a little bit more gay joy.

We’ve seen some of it in recent years. In 2015, Todd Haynes stayed true to Patricia Highsmith’s original text by suggesting the two women of Carol might actually share a future together. In the first two note perfect acts of his show-stopping Oscar winning Moonlight, Barry Jenkins interspersed moments of levity in an often harrowing coming-of-age tale before a final act of giddy, heart-swelling romance. It ended on a grounded moment of hope, all the more moving for its refusal to force its characters into an all-too-soon cinematic clinch. Francis Lee’s rural romance, God’s Own Country, earned its happy ending by first putting its central couple through the wringer, the closing minutes of sheer romance feeling like the result of grindingly hard work. Earlier this year, Greg Berlanti’s unashamedly mainstream teen drama Love, Simon delivered a far more traditionally buoyant finale which dared to allow a same-sex couple the sort of glossy, applaud-worthy kiss that we’ve seen from our straight counterparts for years.

A scene from ‘Love, Simon’

After a week of immersion in LGBT cinema, it’s clear that these remain the exceptions, strikingly rare in a scene still dominated by downbeat narratives. This year’s NewFest opened with poignant AIDS drama, 1985, and outside of the festival, recent films such as Disobedience, Marilyn, 120 Beats per Minute, The Happy Prince, Spa Night, King Cobra, Duck Butter and Call Me by Your Name have all ended on dour notes. I’ve loved seeing an increase in older queer characters in films like Beginners, Love is Strange, The Shape of Water and Can You Ever Forgive Me? but I’d also love to see more of them afforded happiness by the time the credits roll.

Yes, as mentioned, it’s important for us to see some LGBT characters continuing to live in realistically grim circumstances, not suddenly saved by intrusive Hollywood formula, and film-makers shouldn’t rewrite history when retelling vital stories of HIV from the 80s onwards. But it’s also equally as important for us to see stories of resilience, hope, survival and romance. Love, Simon had its many detractors, but what a rare thrill it was to see a moment of glossy, Richard Curtis-esque escapism shared between an attractive interracial gay couple. Have we not seen enough straight joy to demand more of our own?

Call Me By Your Name

Straight characters are allowed to exist without a constant reminder of the reality they might face away from the screen. They populate and dominate films of all genres from westerns to thrillers to science fiction, and narratives fronted by queer leads should be blessed with the same variety. There doesn’t need to be a social importance to every gay story. Why can’t there be a lesbian character at the centre of a Blumhouse horror? How about a bisexual man heading up an Apatowian comedy? Where’s news of Marvel’s non-diluted LGBT superhero adventure?

There are still huge portions of gay history that need to be given space on-screen, undoubtedly, but they should be allowed to exist alongside more escapist fare as well. Homophobia persists for so many LGBT people in the real world with a terrifying rise in hate crime post-Trump but we don’t always require a 120-minute reminder of it at the multiplex. I want to see gay characters thriving, falling in love, having fun, saving the day, overcoming challenges, staying together and being given the space to live happily ever after. Being queer isn’t always easy, but up on the big screen, it shouldn’t always be this hard.

[This piece was originally published on The Guardian]


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  1. Mandy
    November 06, 06:39 Reply

    Aswear. Even the LGBT friendly movies that TIERs is producing is following the same sad ending syllabus. Hell or High Water. We Don’t Live Here Anymore. All of them tragic endings. We deserve more happy endings o.

    • Malik
      November 06, 15:18 Reply

      I think sad endings generate a stronger emotional appeal. People need to know the consequences of homophobia are not pretty.

      P.S. I didn’t particularly like the end of WDLHA but if I were to rescript it, I’d ensure that there wouldn’t be a single dry eye in any cinema where it’s watched.

  2. Rudolph
    November 06, 09:04 Reply

    There’s this new movie, Unfriended: The dark web, with a lesbian couple who are important characters in the movie. It’s a thriller.
    There’s also a gay character who even gets married and gives Marvel it’s first ever gay comic cover. I think with time Marvel will introduce this character to television.

  3. Bee
    November 06, 11:10 Reply

    I’m being reminded of some of these awesome movies I watched. I def cried through all of them, happy or sad. _Weekend_, _Love, Simon_, _Brokeback Mountain_ (I loved this one most, but I’m never watching it again).

    *heavy sigh*

  4. J
    November 06, 20:13 Reply

    …bad ending shows the effects of homophobia. It’s really a long battle, sometimes acceptance comes only when there’s a showcase of pain and hopelessness. Misery/pain can soften and humble a stone heart.

    Tragedy has a greater impact than comedy. I hope society becomes more accepting of gay people, the comments I see on homosexuality are mostly terrifying.

  5. Yazz Soltana
    November 08, 00:44 Reply

    I thought Titanic was sad till I watched Brokeback Mountain , I cried like a baby at the ending

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